Can a hit YouTube channel thrive after its founder departs?
The King of Random had 8 million YouTube subscribers when Grant Thompson suddenly decided he didn't want to create videos anymore.
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About three years ago, Larry Shapiro got the kind of phone call a talent manager never wants to receive. It came from Grant Thompson, a YouTuber he’d been working with for about a year. “I live in Los Angeles,” Shapiro told me in a phone interview. “I’m out on the weekend, doing my errands, and I get a call from Grant, and Grant is a very spiritual person who places a lot of value in his faith. The first thing he said to me was, ‘I was spoken to last night, and I was told not to do this anymore.’” Thompson went on to explain that he no longer had any interest in creating YouTube videos and wanted to spend more time with his wife and kids.
By that point, Thompson’s YouTube channel, The King of Random, had 8 million subscribers. Each video averaged over a million views, and some of his most popular had generated tens of millions. Shapiro was in the process of turning the channel into a huge business, but now its only star was saying he wanted to walk away from it all.
Luckily for Shapiro, Thompson’s sudden epiphany wasn’t entirely unexpected. He had been complaining of burnout for months, and the two were in the process of hiring several people to help with the behind-the-scenes production.
One of those hires was Nate Bonham, a sculptor by training who was brought on to help Thompson build out the machines and scientific experiments that appeared in his videos. Shortly after speaking to Shapiro, Thompson then rang up Bonham to deliver the bad news. “He said, ‘hey, I’m really sorry, but I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m just planning to shut this whole channel down. Do you think you can get your old job back?’”
Bonham figured he probably could get his job back, but he didn’t want to give up on this one just yet. “So I suggested that if he didn’t want to be in videos anymore, I could try being in the videos,” he told me. This idea caught Thompson by surprise, and, after mulling it over for a few moments, he agreed to give it a try. Bonham was on vacation and had stepped away from his family to take the call. “When I came back to them I was like, ‘I have no idea what my life is going to be like when I get home.’”
Within days, Bonham started showing up in King of Random videos — sometimes by himself, other times alongside Thompson. “At first Grant’s day-to-day involvement was high, because I didn’t know how to do anything,” Bonham recalled. “But it was always his goal to get hands off where he could step away from the channel, so it was a fairly progressive move from showing me how to do everything, to backing off where he didn’t have to do anything for months at a time.”
Thompson had built his entire channel on the back of his experiments, and this was his biggest experiment yet: could a YouTube channel with a massive following thrive after its founder departs?
It’s a question that’s becoming increasingly relevant as the creator economy matures. Many of today’s biggest social media stars built their huge audiences through round-the-clock publishing that required long workdays. While this pace is sustainable in your teens and early 20s, it’s not uncommon for it to eventually lead to burnout, especially for those who want to settle down and start a family. This has led to more and more creators attempting to pivot their businesses so they are less dependent on their personal brands; some even want to sell their channels and walk away entirely.
But will 8 million people who have watched a channel over a span of five years simply accept the introduction of a new host? In 2017, Bonham found himself thrown into the deep end, not knowing whether he’d sink or swim. Over the next three years, he had to find his creative voice, build a scalable team, and reckon with the tragic death of his mentor.
In a phone interview, both he and Shapiro walked me through how they handled the transition and built The King of Random into a multi-platform media company with several revenue streams.
Let’s dive into my findings:
The birth of a channel
In the earliest King of Random videos posted a decade ago, Thompson’s face rarely appears; a video titled “How to Make Slime (Ninja Turtle Ooze),” which currently has over 20 million views, features only his hands and voice narration as he walks the viewer through the various ingredients and modifications. Most of these videos are less than five minutes long and seek to illustrate some cool-yet-simple concept, like how to light a fire using a clear plastic bag of your own urine or instantly freeze a bottle of water.
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